Five Steps to Help a Pastor Respond When a Member Leaves the Church

Every pastor knows the feeling. The news may have come via email, telephone, or second-hand conversation. In some cases, the person or persons themselves told you face-to face. They are leaving your church. They may already have another church to join, or they may just be beginning the search process.

But their decision is irrevocable. It is final. You cannot persuade them otherwise.

You feel like you’ve been kicked in the gut. You try to tell yourself not to take it personally, but you do anyway. You don’t understand. You are wounded. Many times you are blindsided by their decisions.

I cannot change the reality that most pastors will experience the exodus of church members. I cannot promise that you will have a new emotional state. But I do pray that the five steps I offer will help you deal with this matter better.

  1. Pray immediately when you hear about the decision. The God we serve is the God of all comfort. He is the God of all wisdom. He knows our hurts and concerns even before we voice them. Before you do anything else, pray.
  2. Talk to the exiting church members. If they are willing, have a conversation with those who are leaving your church. Listen more than speak. Don’t be defensive. Some of the words they say may bring you pain, but allow them to speak and vent if necessary. Before the conversation ends, tell them that you will bless them in their new church. Have prayer with them, a sincere prayer for God’s best for them.
  3. Accept their decision. It is sometimes hard to accept that not all church members agree with our leadership and our church’s ministry. But there is no pastor, past or present, who will make every member happy. As hard as it is to accept, some church members will actually do better under leadership other than yours.
  4. Make corrections if needed. When I was a pastor, I listened to exiting church members tell me why they were leaving. It was almost always painful, but it was often helpful. I asked God to help me not be defensive, and to help me listen carefully to any area where I could make corrections. You know what? I sometimes learned that I could really improve areas of my ministry and life. I became a better person and a better pastor as a consequence.
  5. Write a nice letter about the exiting members. When I could do so in good conscience, I wrote a letter about the exiting members and gave it to them to give to their next pastor. Here is a portion of one of my letters written many years ago: Dear pastor. John and Mary Smith have chosen to join your church. May I be straightforward? Your church will be incredibly blessed by their presence and ministry. Our church was. I am grieving over their departure, but they have explained their reasons, and I accept them. Indeed, I plan to make some changes as a result of our conversations together. You will be amazed how God uses both of them in your church. John and Mary are two of the finest and godliest people I know. May God bless you and them as you grow in Christ together through the ministry of ABC Church.

Pastoral ministry has great challenges, and exiting church members are certainly among those challenges. But you can turn a difficult situation into a blessing if their departure is handled well. And you can possibly learn some lessons to prevent some others from leaving in the future.

What do you think of these five steps? What do you do when members leave your church?

Posted on September 14, 2013

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89 Comments

  • Much good information about pastors dealing with members leaving; however, none about pastors leaving.

    How does a pastor graciously leave a dying church (see “Autopsy of a Dying Church” and “Breakout Church”). On Thom’s fourteen point checklist of danger signs, our pastor/church meets all of them. Being on the inside has given a perspective on the executive pastor that we wish we never knew. He has a lack of love for his sheep, often berating them in private. This has gone on for years in private, but recently some of that is being exposed in public. These facts, coupled with other pastors recently leaving, has accelerated the diminishing membership.

    How do we handle our leaving when God releases us as it will be very obvious when we leave. Of course we will only speak the truth in love, but how does that play out (how much truth or in how much detail)? Do we respond only to those people who ask, or like Paul, meet with all of our volunteers to say goodbye? Are we to be like watchmen on the wall warning the city or like sheep silent before our shearers?

    We have brought our issues to the executive pastor’s attention; however, we have received no response from him. We continue to pray, as always for repentance, forgiveness and healing in all of us that our church may not die, but glorify God.

  • A very close friend of mine left our church. Her explanation was that she needed a change. She had been pulling away from the church and distancing herself from me, and the dear lady that discipled her through many difficult years. She came to know and love the Lord through people in this church, but sadly things in the church began to change and discontent grew. We lost our Pastor as he wanted to go into full time missions and church planting. She was not so upset about losing the Pastor as she knew he needed to follow his heart. She was also complaining about the music and some of the people in the church thinking they inew wverything. She dished out correction but could not receive it. I would encourage her to pray and hang in there as this was the Lords church, that there were no perfect churches and in time our church would recover. Our leaders have done a fabulous job of keeping things going and I feel for our elders and feel it is vital to support the church in the good times as well as the bad. My friend then began to be influenced by people from another church and also by members of our church that left to go to this other church. They spread their stories of the turmoil going on in our church. It hurt that my friend allowed all this negativity to influence her against me and the church that had been such a vital part of her life for so many years. It just goes to show how the old devil uses difficult times in the church to discourage and attack its members, to destroy and cause divisiveness. The old devil is mean and nasty and loves to see people bail for what they think is greener grass. He knows it is going to hurt and that it is going to be discouraging to those left behind. My friend cannot understand why it would be hurtful or discouraging to others. I just simply said that you have to understand that when you leave a church, you don’t just leave a building. What I continue to do is give it all to the Lord, and ask Him to help me to press on. I believe that in time He will give me and our church beauty for ashes.

    Reply

  • Ps. C Frank says on

    It has been my experience in the last 23 years of pastoring that I have never seen a sheep leave the fold admitting they have cause problems, twisted words and situations, their agenda was not fulfilled, etc.
    It seems every sheep that leaves a church is because the leadership, the church, the pastor is at fault. We can not deny that there are abusive situations, but to assume that every situation is due to abuse is in my opinion naive.
    I remember when we remodeled our stage. We wanted to give a more contemporary look to our stage, added some lights and screens. A group of 3 families left the church because “they couldn’t worship God with colored lights” I was accused of turning the church into a disco.
    Most recently, a couple left our church because, after several years of disfunctionality in their marriage and home life, after sessions of counseling, we ask them to take time out of any form of service to deal with their failing marriage. That was it! Their response was to send an insulting letter to me, they proceeded to attend another church, and began a telephone, Facebook and email campaign to bad mouth, attack and persuade other people to leave the church. I was called abusive, controller, manipulator, etc. Withing a matter of weeks they had contacted several staff members and church members in general causing a number of people to send me letters of resignation to our church membership.

    My question, (in seeking wisdom) right in the middle of he aftermath of their actions, Should I have contacted the pastor of the church they were attending and inform him of their actions?

  • A. Roberts says on

    What difference does it make what church someone chooses to go to? Why should pastors be concerned if a number of people leave to go elsewhere? I thought the whole idea of starting a church was to bring people closer to Christ, not increase attendance or tithing. If someone felt loved and appreciated at your church at one time and for whatever reason no longer feels that way then they should feel free to go elsewhere. I do not feel it is appropriate for pastors to be conveying with one another about members or collaborating on how each one of them may retain members of their flock. If one person feels closer to Christ at ABC church then they should feel free to go there. If they suddenly feel closer to Christ at XYZ church then so be it. This is not about the church, the pastor or their abilities. This is about a closer relationship with Christ. The sooner you realize that this way of thinking is the exact recipe for church hopping the sooner people will stop doing it. All anybody wants is a place that they can go and feel loved and draw closer to Christ. No one wants to be used for their donations, talents or time. This is where the majority of the problems come in. I’ll stop there. That will open another can of worms, I don’t have time to discuss.

  • I rose early on a Sunday morning after having this conversation just the night before. The scripture suggests that God provides pastors after his own heart. God also declares all souls to be his. As a pastor this brief sadness over departures, for whatever reason, is an abiding scar on the heart of good Godly pastors that pour out of love and calling. It can be painful especially when it regards persons you have become fond of.

    Nevertheless, Joe’s statement to serve and love Jesus and the people is spot on. I have learned in over 35 years of ministry to do just that. In the kingdom, people are not born to you but through you. That is to say, one must keep focus on the service you provide by the Holy Spirit. We are a reconciled spirit very much connected to sense driven flesh. We are encapsulated by humanity but we have an edge, we have the indwelling of God’s Spirit in our spirit. “It hurts but it will heal”.

    I do my best to place these things in perspective and have quickly learned to move forward so that I keep focused on those that remain and those that are coming. Be open. Be transparent. Be approachable. Listen, learn and forgive not only those that offend but yourself. These assemblies are not clubs, they are hospitals, they are meeting places, thay are 1000 plus, they are two or three and must be handled with godly perspective.

    Take time to fast and pray as was so eloquently stated. And always take time for self rejuvenation. Keep your own family and close friends part of your non-church life. Spend time practicing balanced living.

    I spend a bunch of time on facebook, sharing from my Graces (mistakes), the lessons our father has helped me to learn and the biblical solutions that have brought me through. Though each experience is different and each individual unique, there is noting new under the sun (wish i had said that. 🙂

    Run your course with patience and don’t lean to your own understanding of things. Be faithul and that crown of life we hear about will be given you, it’s a done deal! Remember, its not “how many left” your waiting to hear from Christ Jesus, its “Well done, good and faithful servant, Come On In’!

    This blog blessed me. I wish I had the time to listen snd share more deeply. God bless you all.
    Dr. L A.Flood Sr.

  • Mr Rainer,
    How do you respond to people who say that God told them to leave but they don’t know where they are going? Wouldn’t the Lord reveal a new place of worship before they left the old one?
    As an aside, I think people often blame God for leaving a church when it was their own decision and they just want to make it sound more spiritual. Don’t want to sound bitter but have been deeply wounded by this. They were slowly eliminating themselves from leadership and church servanthood for a long time before they came and said God spoke.

  • Frederick Towles says on

    Excellent advice and good wisdom. Thank you for the article.

  • I Pastor a church in a rural area and have a family that is contemplating leaving the church. The wife talked with mine and my wife was very too the point about the reason for their departing since they used to be key people in the church. The last year I have seen them pulling away and making reducing their commitment from Board Member and home fellowship leaders and ushers to pew warmers. The reason they cited to my wife for leaving was that I made inappropriate comments while preaching. The interesting thing is they couldn’t remember any that I made. What bothers me the most is the hours I spent ministering to this man. when we started meeting I had to work hard to get our conversation off of worldly things and on God. After many months of weekly meetings he became on fire for the Lord in the church. I fear pride has gotten hold of him the way he avoids talking to me and promotes himself in the church. I am bi-vocational so I don’t have the time to continually spend with them since my time is precious and we are a rapidly growing church. I need to spend time with new people, as I did with them, and I don’t think his wife and he get it. I am not going to beg them to stay but they just won’t communicate to me what they want to do? I will miss their friendship greatly since I’ve known the wife since high school. I don’t know what to do? I do pray they stay but the ball is in their court.

  • This is a back and forth issue. Here is how I handle the members at our church. For one I don’t interview anyone for becoming a member of why the X & Y reason they he or she left. What is done is done. I only focus on The person knowing Christ as Lord of their life. God is big enough to handle the situation. We need to stop. pre judging God’s sheep and Pastor relationship. Pray and much love will conquer any stronghold or insecurities that we may have. I have seen both issues and I must say- members and Pastors do Transform into perfect (maturity) Christians.

  • You have provided wise advice. I also believe that another member of the church should also be involved in the exit process. I have had a negative experience with a pastor’s wife. I was the only witness to a conversation with the pastor’s wife in which she was extremely hateful. The pastor believed she had done nothing wrong (he was not present). My husband, whom I had told what she had said the day it occurred, told me that if I brought it up, “They (the small town community) will just turn it against you,” which may have been correct. However, I am thinking that if someone else in leadership was involved in our discussion both sides would be healthier today and we would possibly still be at the church. When the worst interactions I’d had at this church were with the pastor’s wife and father, it’s a bit difficult for the pastor to be objective when issues hit too close to home. An objective outsider would be beneficial in mediation. Nobody except the pastor ever spoke with us about why we were leaving and we were charter members.

  • Jeff Glenn says on

    One of my frustrations as a small church pastor is when a family leaves our church because it’s “small and they don’t have much to offer my family.” That’s frustrating to me because IF that family would get MORE involved, we COULD “offer” more. We’ve experienced that with two families in the last few months.

  • Very timely. I have have experienced this on more than one occasion. It’s not easy, especially since we have a small congregation to begin with. Every one is important, and the absence of individuals, and especially families is very noticeable. In my experience I have found that even when you are able to work out an issue with a member that wants to depart, and then they decide to stay. It’s not long until another reason comes up. It’s sad to say the least. I just recently had a new guest who had been a couple of times who prayed for God to save her, and brought her son, and her boyfriend came a couple of times and he prayed, and I could see that God was really dealing with them….told me she took offense at my wife, I addressed that… then it was I was preaching about the “negative” ( sin is negative, but the Grace of God is positive), but then it was because someone in the church didn’t smile at her. the problem with this is that (as in this ladies case) they try to take others with them, and she did. So what do we do as Pastors? I simply told her no matter where you go, please be faithful to that church and that Pastor. We live in a culture and an region where “Church Hopping” is the norm. So what can we? PRAY, LOVE GOD, LOVE PEOPLE, and PRESS ON! And may I add FORGIVE!